5. Figuring and Testing
A. Polishing pads do a great job of polishing out the pits, but they tend to leave a rough surface that is not a true paraboloid or even a section of a sphere, unless you are very, very lucky. Most folks will switch to a pitch lap for the figuring process, which involves removing sub-microscopic amounts of glass from various zones on your mirror, in order first to make it into a section of a sphere, and then into the bottom of a paraboloid – the only geometric figure that will reflect all of the rays that come from distant stars onto a single focal point. Many treatises have been written about figuring, and I’m not going to add to that list. “Understanding Foucault” by David Harbour gives an excellent explanation of the figuring process, as does Mel Bartels here. However, here are some of the basics:
B. You will need a pitch lap, made either of Gugolz or Acculap or Tempered Burgundy pitch. The first two are synthetic products whose composition is probably secret; the third one is made from the sap of coniferous trees. I’m not going to describe the process of making a pitch lap here, but I combine some of the methods of Carl Zambuto and John Dobson when I make a new one; you can watch it as we do it for you. It’s much less work if you can use a pitch lap that was made by or for someone else who has finished their own project. Sometimes a previously-used pitch lap will have sat around too long and might need to be scraped off and remelted. We generally use roughly square facets, which allow the pitch to flow better and conform itself to your mirror. Without the facets, any high points on the lap have a hard time being lowered. We also tend to use netting or a single-edge razor blade to make minifacets, which further help the lap to conform to the mirror.
C. Pitch is weird stuff. When it’s warm, it flows and it’s very sticky. When it’s cold, it is fairly hard, and you can shatter it with a hammer. If you leave a pencil or a coin on a pitch lap overnight, the next day you can see all of the details of the pencil or coin reproduced perfectly in the pitch. We want the lap to conform itself to your mirror. Then we use the pitch lap to remove all of the irregularities that were left by the polishing pads. So, we warm up the pitch lap to soften it a bit (using a heat lamp or hot water), spread Cerox or rouge onto your mirror, and then press the two together briefly but firmly. We often use some netting to create micro-facets, which help the pitch conform to your mirror even more.
D. The figuring stage can severely try your patience, especially if the tests show a surface that looks weird. But relax! If you persevere and don’t drop the mirror on the ground, success is guaranteed, since it’s just a matter of removing the correct millionth of an inch or two (much less than a micrometer) of glass from the correct zonal ring to achieve near-perfection. One needs to make sure that the lap actually conforms to the mirror; bad contact between the two can cause trouble, and so can a pitch lap that is too hard, too soft, or too thin. All of those are fairly easily fixed, with remarkable results. And we are here to help.
E. One major problem that can affect mirrors is a Turned-Down Edge (TDE). Opinions vary on what causes this dreaded condition, but the evidence suggests to me that TDE appears when the lap is exactly the same size, or slightly smaller, than the mirror itself. To avoid a TDE, do not chip off the parts of the pitch lap that ‘mushroom’ out past the edge. Let them stay there.
F. You will be instructed in a specific set of strokes which will first make your mirror into a sphere. Then, you will be instructed in a different set of strokes that will make your mirror into a good approximation of a perfect paraboloid. Texereau, LeCleire, and many other books describe those strokes. So did Leon Foucault in his 1859 article, which you can find on this blog/website. In our workshop, we will test your mirror frequently with a combination of tests, many of them invented by Foucault but later modified.
G. A very fast qualitative test is the Ronchi test, which you can look up. It gives you almost instant feedback on the presence or absence of bad features like turned-down edge (TDE), zonal defects (high or low rings), astigmatism (lack of symmetry), roughness, and so on. It will tell you whether your mirror is a sphere or not – if the Ronchi lines are perfectly straight, then you have a sphere. If they are not straight, then the test can tell us if your mirror is on the way towards being an ellipsoid with the long axis perpendicular to the mirror (or parallel to it), or a hyperboloid, or your goal, a paraboloid. There are several computer programs that provide simulations of what a perfect mirror should look like under the Ronchi test, but I’ve found you can’t always trust those simulations. RonWin is one such program, and Mel Bartels has another on one of his web pages.
H. A more time-consuming test that I find is necessary is the Foucault test as modified by Andre Couder, also known as the numerical knife-edge test with zones. If the Ronchigram looks good, and the numbers in the knife-edge zonal test are also within acceptable limits, then the mirror is done. A slight modification of this test is known as the Wire Test, which works well on fast mirrors. David Harbour’s article does an excellent job of explaining this test. One can use a pinstick method for marking the zones, or one could write directly on the mirror with a Sharpie, but we use a version that uses cardboard masks with holes cut out at carefully-measured zones.
I. We have tried a number of other tests, such as the double-pass autocollimation test, the Mobsby Null test, and the Bath Interferometer test, and have had difficulties getting good results with them. Therefore, we are continuing to use the Ronchi and Knife-Edge Zonal tests.
J. However, the best test of any mirror is the Star Test, which is the subject of an entire book by Richard Suiter. Some do this in the daylight, using sunlight reflected from very distant insulators on electrical poles. Most do it at night, but it requires steady air (‘good seeing’) and a clear sky as well. The Star Test is much easier to perform if the mirror is already aluminized and in a working telescope, which brings us to….
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